Jeonbuk bribery scandal mired in doubt

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Jeonbuk bribery scandal mired in doubt

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Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors is being scrutinized by both prosecutors and fans after one of their scouts was indicted on suspicion of bribing K-League referees.

While the incident has undoubtedly tarnished the reputation of the elite K-League club, many are wondering whether the scout committed the alleged offense at his own discretion or whether he is merely a scapegoat for a team.

Whatever the case, the incident case has caused major upheaval in the Korean football world.

Jeonbuk is the back-to-back winner of the K-League, claiming the throne in 2014 and 2015. The team is considered one of the most beloved in the K-League today.

But the stature of the club took a serious blow on Monday when the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office disclosed that one of Jeonbuk’s scouts is accused of bribing two referees to make decisions in the team’s favor.

After Jeonbuk made its official statement on Monday, denying any previous knowledge of the incident and saying that the scout bribed the referees without the club’s knowledge, the team has been bombarded with criticism and denunciation.

Some fans question if it would actually be possible for a scout to hand over money behind the scenes without the club’s knowledge and approval.

The general consensus is that the team’s claim doesn’t make sense because there’s no incentive for a scout, a job unaffected by the result of matches, to spend his own money bribing referees.

Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of JoongAng Daily, examined how different groups are understanding and responding to the case.

Stance of Jeonbuk

Jeonbuk adamantly denies any knowledge of the bribery. As soon as the news went viral, the team announced that if the allegations were true, the scout hadn’t reported his actions to the club.

Lacking hard evidence to contradict Jeonbuk’s denial, the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office is looking at the case on the presumption that the scout acted alone.

Still, many Korean football experts have their doubts about Jeonbuk’s innocence.

“Who would believe what Jeonbuk says,” said an industry insider. “Although it is unclear exactly to what extent the club was involved in the case, strictly speaking it makes no sense that a temporary employee [the scout] would go out of his way to do such a thing.”

Other observers wonder how the club did not know that one of its employees was being investigated by prosecutors for an entire month.

Jeonbuk says it heard about the news through the media on Monday. But the prosecutors’ office began its investigation in mid-April, and some say it’s unlikely the scout did not report the affair to the club.

The indicted scout is a former footballer and has been working for Jeonbuk since 2002. He’s also known to be a right-hand man of Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee. But prosecutors aren’t tying the manager to the case, as Choi left Jeonbuk to coach the national team in 2013 and was absent during the period the scout allegedly bribed the referees.

Even if the allegations are proven true and the team’s position is upheld, it does not change the fact that the scout bribed the referees while affiliated with Jeonbuk. Some fans say the team must see this as an issue for the entire club, not as the actions of a single employee.

For his part, the scout maintains that he wasn’t bribing the referees at all, but rather providing some financial support for his struggling junior colleagues.



Stance of the prosecutors’ office

The Busan District Prosecutors’ office suspects Jeonbuk is involved in the case, but they have found no hard evidence.

According to a prosecutor in charge, the scout is maintaining that he paid the referees out of pocket. Although the prosecutors’ office conducted an intensive investigation, it found no proof to indict the club.

“We lack the evidence that the scout previously conferred with the club’s officials before bribing the referees,” added the prosecutor. “It’s not like there is a receipt for the bribe he paid.”

If the scout maintains his assertion, the prosecutor said he has no choice but to dismiss the club from suspicions. Still, he maintains that the club’s guilt cannot be ruled out.

One referee, age 41, allegedly received 1 million won ($839) on two occasions while the other referee, 36, allegedly obtained the same amount of money from the Jeonbuk scout on three occasions in 2013.

Although it is unclear which five matches involved bribed referees, the prosecutor said they were played from March to October.

Jeonbuk was on a roller-coaster ride during this period. Starting off the season at the top of the ranking, it fell to seventh until Choi returned later in the season. The team finished the year third in the K-League standings.

“Clubs other than Jeonbuk are not our target of investigation at the moment,” said the prosecutor. “It’s safe to say that no other clubs have come under our radar.”



Stance of managers from other clubs

The managers of other K-League clubs support stern action against any team involved in bribery. They agree that if the allegations are found to be true, then Jeonbuk should be given the harshest-possible punishment.

“What’s the point of running a sports club if you would go as far as bribing a referee to rig games?” said the director of a K-League club. “You might as well just close it down.”

A club should be run under the sport’s code of conduct and fair competition. Jeonbuk has violated the foundation of its own existence, the director said.

“Does it make sense that a scout bribed a referee without the consent from the club?” he added. “The club must have known. They must implement harsh measures to prevent similar cases in the future.”

The director said he would even consider taking away the club’s past trophies or forcing the team to forfeit the rest of the season.

The managers’ opinions were similar.

“Jeonbuk has everything a football club could ask for including reputation, top players and support from the sponsor,” said the manager of a K-League club. “There is no need for bribery. It must have been due to the pressure of winning. As a footballer myself, I have mixed feelings.”

Another manager said, “We have seen a substantial decrease in suspicions of bribery or rigging games in the past couple of years. To further prevent the wrongdoings, we need to implement decisive means.”

They also expressed their dissatisfaction about some of the calls made in K-League games. “When watching a game, there are some calls that are difficult to agree with,” said the director. “Although clubs often protest, there is nothing they can do if the referees say it was just a mistake.”

These calls sometimes even change the outcome of a game, according to the managers. At other times, referees don’t blow their whistle when there’s obviously a foul - leading the managers to suspect money has changed hands somewhere.



Stance of the fans

Some fans are also skeptical about Jeonbuk’s statement. As a team with one of the largest fanbases in the K-League, the case comes as a shock to football aficionados in Korea. They say the scout is just a scapegoat for Jeonbuk to dodge responsibility. As the managers of some other clubs said, fans doubt the scout paid referees without discussing it with officials of the club. Some fans on the internet have made sarcastic remarks, saying that if the scout used his own money to pay the referees out of his affection for the club, then he deserves to win an award for “employee of the year.”

“Even if the club wasn’t involved in the case, this does not change the fact that he works for Jeonbuk,” said a fan. “Jeonbuk must live up to its reputation as an elite team and assume the responsibility for the case.”

In the midst of all the commotion, Jeonbuk’s fan club “Mad Green Boys” (MGB) was resolute about the case.

“We cannot take this case lightly,” said a representative of MGB. “The club should not dismiss this as an action of an individual. It must conduct an internal investigation about the matter and humbly accept whatever consequences come.

“Korea Football Association should no longer overlook all the wrong customs and practices deep-seated in the league,” the representative added. “Through a comprehensive investigation, the association must make sure that football fans are not disappointed again with similar cases in the future.”

At the moment, the distrust towards how things are run in the K-League seems to be intensifying, as the matter is expanding in scope beyond the problem of a single club and onto the entire league.

Jeonbuk manager Choi is also reportedly considering resignation because of the scandal.

“I’ve been with the team for over 10 years and have always regarded trust the top priority of my management,” said Choi during a press conference on Tuesday. “Once everything is revealed after the investigation, I will further discuss about the matter. At the moment, I think I am entirely responsible about what happened. I offer my sincere apology to the club and the fans”

In the midst of all this, Jeonbuk defeated Melbourne Victory 2-1 on Tuesday to advance to the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League.

BY KIM HEE-SEON, CHOI YONG-JAE, SEO JI-YOUNG and PI JOO-YOUNG [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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